Save the Deli

Gimme Some Love LA!

photo credit (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Today seems to be a big LA press day, with my visit there under a week away. I couldn’t be happier. For those of you who’ve read the book, you know it was a highlight to fress in the city of angels.

First off is a great story by Elina Shatkin at the Los Angeles Times:

The deli capital? It’s L.A.
That’s the conclusion of ‘Save the Deli’ author David Sax. He explains why the City of Angels beats out New York and other contenders.

It was in rural Kansas, near the geographical center of America, that David Sax hit rock bottom in his search for the perfect deli sandwich. It happened innocently enough, in an Arby’s. He had ordered a Reuben.

“What I got was this horrible abomination of plasticized cheese that tasted like it had come from a napalm plant,” he says. “Meat that had been pressed and pumped and vacuumed and torn apart to increase its yield in water but had no flavor. Bread that was just white bread painted a dark rye color. It was horrendous. And it was microwaved. I had two bites and that was it.”

But if Sax found the nadir of the Reuben, he also found its zenith. And — perhaps surprisingly — he didn’t find it in New York, the birthplace of the Jewish deli; he found it here in Los Angeles.

“It’s a very difficult business to be in,” Sax says, “but the [delis] that are most inspiring, the ones that people cling to, the ones that people enshrine for years and years are the traditional Jewish delis. And Los Angeles just happens to have more of them than any city I’ve been to.”

To die-hard deli aficionados and sandwich fans, this assertion is heresy. It certainly wasn’t what Sax, a Toronto native who now lives in Brooklyn, expected to discover. But in “Save the Deli,” a book that traces the rise and fall of Jewish delicatessens from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the suburbs of middle America, he makes that very claim. CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THE STORY AT LATIMES.COM

Next up is an exclusive excerpt of the LA chapter from the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

This text is excerpted from the just-released book, ďSave the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen,Ē by David Sax, copyright (c) 2009. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Brace yourselves, New York, because what I am about to write is definitely going to piss a lot of you off, but it needs to be said: Los Angeles has become Americaís premier deli city.

Wait … Stop … Put the gun down. Itís true.

Across the cityís sprawling acres, there are more delicatessens of a higher quality, on average, than anywhere else in America. Every time I visited one deli, I heard about three more. Despite their healthy image, far more Angelenos than native New Yorkers eat at Jewish delicatessens on a regular basis. Though the occasional tourist swings by, Jewish delicatessens in L.A. are thriving in the present, not trading on fabled pasts.

There has been no grand decline in the Los Angeles deli scene. Most are packed, sometimes around the clock, and not just with older Brooklynites like Larry King (who eats breakfast at Nateín Al daily). The delis out there are bigger, are more comfortable, and ultimately serve better food than any other city in America, including the best pastrami sandwich on Earth. Los Angeles is both the exception to the rule of deliís inevitable decline and the example for the rest of the nation of how deli can ultimately stay relevant. If we are to save the deli elsewhere, we can learn a lot from L.A.

When California was incorporated into the Union in 1850, there were just eight Jews in Los Angeles. Because of its distance from Europe, Los Angeles never experienced the massive influx of Ashkenazi immigrants that descended upon the East Coast in the late nineteenth century. The great sea change for L.A. came in 1913, when burgeoning film director Cecil B. DeMille teamed with partners Samuel Goldwyn (who would form MGM) and Jesse Lasky (who helped create Paramount) to make a movie, ďThe Squaw,Ē in a suburb called Hollywood, ushering in the golden era of filmmaking.

Many in the upper echelons of the early studio system were Jewish, forever implanting Hollywood with a disproportionate Semitic flavor that prevails to this day. As the film business grew in the postwar era, a migration west of Jewish entertainment talent swelled, lured by easy money, swimming pools, and golden-haired shiksas. And while delicatessens back east may have occasionally served the president of a Wall Street bank, out in L.A. the studio bosses and A-list movie stars ate at the deli almost daily. The Universal studio commissary featured matzo ball soup, and the Academy Awards after-parties were catered by Nateín Al. CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THIS EXCERPT AT JEWISHJOURNAL.COM

And there’s also a Q and A with the Jewish Journal’s Rob Eshman, a true deli lover and fan of this book for a long time. He also seems to want to get my ass kicked by New York deli lovers more than anyone. Keep stirring the pot Eshman!

Rob Eshman: You selected Los Angeles as the best deli city in America. You must have taken some heat for that.
David Sax: It irked people, but no one has built pyres quite yet. New York is the historic and cultural home of Jewish deli, and itís very much ingrained in the culture. But people just donít realize how far Los Angles has come, and I didnít as well. I didnít expect it to be as good as it was. Who knew?

RE: So tell me why you think Los Angeles is the best.
DS: One major factor was obviously the predominance of the entertainment industry and how that factors into delicatessens. It provided a tremendous backbone to the business culturally and financially, and you canít replicate that anywhere else. The deli owners are also on much more friendly terms in Los Angeles than they are in other cities. They tend to talk to one another, to help each other out in certain situations, and that really has an impact in the way the industry works ó theyíre sort of united in a way. The fact that the majority of the delis are family owned, sometimes two or three or even four generations, also has a tremendous impact on the quality of the food thatís being served, the way that customers are treated, the outlook that youíre really taking care of something. Itís not just an investment ó itís a legacy.

RE: And in New York, are the delis corporate owned, or are they highly competitive with one another?
DS: There are a few corporate-owned delis. Lindyís, which is in Times Square, is owned by Riese Restaurants, which is a large restaurant conglomerate that owns a lot of the T.G.I. Fridayís and Dunkiní Donuts. You also donít have as many family members working in the delis as you do in Los Angeles.

RE: You must have some kind of visceral connection to deli other than just being hungry.
DS: I had always eaten it as a kid, and it had always been sort of something that we did as a family, so it was probably the familiar food of my youth. It was something that I always loved and identified with, so the emotional connection was always there, the cultural connection was always there, and then this intellectual curiosity came out of a paper I wrote in college. I had realized a lot of the emotional connection was that the delis were dying ó the delis were disappearing. Iíd see delis that Iíd known in Toronto and Montreal and other places close down and I really was sort of struck by that, and so this was my opportunity to say, well, why is that happening?

2 Responses to “Gimme Some Love LA!”

  1. Ilene Says:

    Lindy’s is not a NY jewish deli. It’s a corporate. Only traditional delis should be included in this blog, not the corporates, duh.

  2. Jason Says:

    Duh yourself. He explicitly says that Lindy’s is a corporate… “Lindyís, which is in Times Square, is owned by Riese Restaurants, which is a large restaurant conglomerate that owns a lot of the T.G.I. Fridayís and Dunkiní Donuts”.

    I used to love Switzer’s deli in Toronto. The old one on Spadina Ave. These days it’s Greenblatt’s in West Hollywood. It’s a great place, lovely servers and good food. Also love Sherman’s in Palm Springs. Gotta have my deli food!

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